A Panel of Ex-Prisoners

“Reducing Recidivism through Connection and Community”

I learned about this event from the San Diego Foundation because they have blessed me with a couple of scholarships over the years, and I still get their emails. The title meant little by itself, but the description really piqued my interest:

Nearly 3 out of 4 state prisoners released to San Diego County will be re-incarcerated. Our county’s recidivism rates are among the worst in the state, which has real consequences for our economy, our future, and our youth.

I have volunteered for organizations and learned about issues surrounding homelessness, wealth inequality, and the cycle of poverty, but never prison reform/criminal justice (although it did remind me of UC San Diego’s Books for Prisoners). Because it is so closely connected to many of the subjects that I care about, I decided to check it out.

They also casually mentioned that the guest of honor, Scott Budnick, is the producer of The Hangover series (which he apologized for), as well as the founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition

First, a definition: Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime. -National Institute of Justice

The panel, from left to right:

  • Jay, a UC San Diego student (formerly incarcerated)
  • Cerise, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor (formerly incarcerated)
  • Scott Budnick, ARC founder/president
  • Anthony Beebe, San Diego City College President
  • Beto Vasquez, UC San Diego Masters student (formerly incarcerated)

All of our ex-prisoners were surprised themselves about their accomplishments and attributed their progress to the support networks and resources they had. Higher education has played a large part in changing lifestyles, although certainly not the only path away from anti-recidivism.

Scott first became interested in anti-recidivism while he was working on Old School, and was invited to co-host a creative writing workshop at a juvenile hall. He was surrounded by kids that were sentenced to life in prison. Many, he felt, were unjustly sentenced for offenses that did not warrant this degree of punishment (eg. standing next to the person who pulled the trigger at the time of incident).

Fast-forward many a year, he and ARC have helped advocate for youth in prison and the end of juvenile life without parole. They have piloted a program in LA, where former inmates live together across the street from the community college that they all attend together. This has been extremely successful, as they form a network of support and understanding–they are connected by where they’ve been and where they’re going. It is harder to fall back into the same bad habits that landed them in prison in the first place.

In San Diego, many feel that more needs to be done. They repeatedly called this “a necessary dialogue.” San Diego City College has been very supportive of the initiative to provide education and transition assistance to the formerly incarcerated. They hope to start a similar program of shared housing and increased resources for transitioning to education or the workforce.

What intrigued me the most was the diverse audience. During the Q&A, it came to be known that many of the audience members had similar stories. Most of the people who raised their hand for the mic had also served time and wanted to share how lost they were, how difficult the transition was, and the lack of resources they faced. Two men could not stop going on and on about their stories; they had to be politely asked to let others speak. A group of people behind me were City College students who didn’t think the school was doing enough to support them. Scott agreed to speak personally to two of the audience members after the talk was over.

One of the largest problems upon release is the lack of stable housing, or a return to old communities and neighborhoods that fostered criminal behavior. When prisoners are released, they are given $200 and in San Diego, about $90 of that goes toward a Greyhound bus ticket to Downtown San Diego. After they get off: they are greeted by the lovely “Tent City” — a collection of homeless tents — drug dealers (according to an audience member), and expensive housing options in this poppin’ part of town.

Even if they are able to stay with someone when they first get out, the panel members all described the feeling as “overwhelming” and nerve-wracking from the uncertainty of civilian life, especially after being behind bars for so many years.

It reminded me of that emotional scene in Orange is the New Black (spoiler?) when Taystee lands herself back in prison after getting out, and Poussey is happy, but also disappointed to see her in orange again. She says at least she knows the rules, has a bed, and people she knows who care about her.

>You can criticize them for being weak, but you must also look at the system that generates these kinds of statistics.

The negative stereotypes about former felons just makes it that much harder for them to survive, let alone succeed, in the workforce. But, the panel shows, it is possible.

Overall, the event showed there was potential for change and hope for progress.

Here’s how they suggest you help:

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christinaluu93

UC San Diego grad with a double major in Economics and International Business. I was born and raised in sunny San Diego, but I love to travel (and eat) around the world.

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